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Bar Brawl

Former Baltimore Lawyer Sues Maryland’s Attorney-Discipline System

Frank Klein
SEE YOU IN COURT: Mark J. Adams is taking action against the "unconstitutional" attorney grievance commission, which disbarred him a decade ago.

By Van Smith | Posted 12/21/2005

With a 43-page complaint filed Dec. 14 with Maryland’s highest court, Mark J. Adams, a former Baltimore-based attorney, hopes to spur reform of what, according to his case, is a “rogue agency, which was unconstitutional at its inception and which has operated with a three-decades-long pattern of unconstitutional conduct and bias.” His target is the Attorney Grievance Commission (AGC), the state’s attorney-discipline agency formed in 1975, which stripped Adams of his law license a decade ago in a case that Adams did not contest. He has since worked from time to time as a journalist, most notably as editor and publisher of the now-defunct local newspapers Harbor Crescent and Baltimore Press.

“I have better things to do with my life than to spend hundreds of hours going after Mel Hirshman,” Adams said, referring to the AGC’s longtime chief counsel. “But I’m the only one who can do it—because [the AGC] can’t do anything to me.” In 1995, Adams was disbarred for failing to provide clients with competent and diligent representation. He has not sought reinstatement to the bar, though he has filed several complaints with the AGC alleging lawyer misconduct, and he writes in his case against the agency that the AGC “has routinely dismissed or otherwise failed to take action” on them. Hirshman, whose agency has a staff of 30, told City Paper “I have no comment on what Mr. Adams filed with the Court of Appeals.”

The suit seeks a “writ of mandamus,” legalese for an order directing a public entity to perform a specific act. In this case, Adams claims that the Maryland Rules of Court that govern the AGC are unconstitutional in several respects, and he asks the Maryland Court of Appeals—the AGC’s governing authority—to suspend the AGC’s operations until it can be reformed to operate lawfully. The court, Adams says, can either consider his petition or “blow the whole thing off altogether. If they do that, I’ll just go to the federal courts, since I raise several federal constitutional issues.”

Adams’ first gripe is over the Client Protection Fund, which collects an annual assessment of $125 from every lawyer practicing in Maryland to help underwrite the AGC’s costs of disciplining attorneys. The funding mechanism, Adams contends, constitutes an illegal tax because it is collected and administered by a court agency without approval from the legislature, as required in the state constitution. The remedy he recommends is to hand over the fund to the state treasurer.

Adams also says the Maryland Rules of Court governing attorney discipline allow the court to act as both prosecutor and judge, permit someone other than the Maryland attorney general to represent the state in court proceedings, and delegate judicial powers to a nonjudicial officer—all in violation of constitutional principals. In addition, he claims the AGC violates due process and equal protection, and operates in secret.

The AGC’s “standards for attorney discipline in Maryland are variable, arbitrary, capricious, and irrational,” Adams writes in his suit. In making his case, he cites numerous examples of prestigious, well-connected lawyers engaged in alleged misconduct without any discipline, while sole practitioners without the right ties feel the full brunt of sanctions for the same allegations. “The range of decisions,” he writes, “gives absolutely no guidance to a practicing attorney, or to the public, as to conduct that is impermissible.”

One of the cases cited in Adams’ complaint involved Harold S. Link, who successfully appealed a 2002 lower-court decision that said Link failed to respect the rights of a Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) clerk by calling the clerk “Sparky” during an argument over public access to MVA records. The AGC’s lawyer had argued that the term was racially pejorative, but the argument was eventually rejected by the court. Link, interviewed recently over the phone, doesn’t hold back when airing his opinions about the conduct of the AGC and Hirshman, both in his case and generally.

“It’s like Hirshman walks around with a cattle prod,” Link says. “The guy can just zap anybody he wants to. About 99 percent of attorneys [who have complaints filed against them with the AGC] are just scared shitless of him.” He also says that confidential proceedings during the case were used to collect evidence against him.

“It is supposed to be completely confidential, but instead they used my own words against me, quoted me, and supplied that information to Mel Hirshman to bring charges against me,” Link says. “It was nothing but a discovery mechanism for Hirshman.”

Adams uses the Link case and another, a 2004 case against Norman Joseph Lee III, to argue that AGC attorneys have been accused of deliberately presenting false testimony, yet the allegations remain uninvestigated. Thus, Adams alleges, “the Court is biased in favor of its administrative officers” at the AGC.

Another disbarred attorney, Leonard Kerpelman, lauds Adams’ efforts to reform the way Maryland attorneys are disciplined. Kerpelman practiced law from 1950 until 1989, when he was stripped of his license because the AGC charged that he had billed excessive fees to a client. The amount, Kerpelman says, was $6,000 for 40 hours of work at a $150 per hour. Kerpelman chalks up the case against him as retribution for his famous representation of atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963, which ended school prayer. “They harassed the hell out of me after that,” Kerpelman maintains. “And they finally got something to stick. I’m glad that somebody with a lot of intelligence finally has his teeth into this.”

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